GEORGE MURPHY - Thursday, March 4, 2010
I'm normally the one to defend Bob Bradley's formation and personnel decisions following tough losses to top European competition, but after Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Netherlands even I can't begin to explain what the game plan was against a team who was a perfect 8-0-0 in World Cup qualifying and one of the best teams in the world.
If there was one player on the entire field who could single-handedly pick an opposing team apart with any type of talent around him, it's the Oranje's number seven play maker Wesley Sneijder. Since leaving Real Madrid over the summer and coming to Inter Milan, he has put the Nerazzurri on his back and lead them to the top of the Serie A standings.
He also recently lead the team to a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of their Champions League showdown. Sneijder is arguably one of the best attacking center midfielders in the world with all due respect to Cesc Faabregas, Frank Lampard, and Xavi.
That being said, you would think that Bradley would make sure that one of the United States' primary goals for Wednesday's match would be to shut down Sneijder and make sure that he doesn't find space to operate, right?
Well, you would hope so, but based on Wednesday's performance I'm not sure if Bradley and his coaching staff didn't identify Sneijder as a primary concern or if the players completely failed to carry out the game plan.
Throughout the entire match Sneijder was able to turn with plenty of time to pick out his teammates. To say that starting center midfielders Michael Bradley and Jose Francisco Torres were unable to contain him would be a vast understatement. Not only were neither of them able to put any sort of pressure on Sneijder, there were many occasions where Bradley, in particular, would simply stand and watch while giving him a free role to play whichever passes he pleased and almost daring him to shoot instead.
On the first goal, in which many will blame Jonathan Bornstein for pulling him down and giving up a penalty, Sneijder easily turned past Torres, split him and Bradley who was too slow to come over to provide help, and suddenly found himself with a wide open shot in the penalty area had Bornstein not pulled him down.
The second goal was also a result of Sneijder once again having time to receive the ball and play the pass that he decided on (versus Bradley or Edu forcing him outside or determining which way he looks, if at all).
And as if the fact that Sneijder had so much space throughout the entire game isn't confusing enough, what's even more baffling is that he was the only attacking center midfielder for The Netherlands playing in front of holding midfielders Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel. They also only had one striker in Dirk Van Kuyt.
Whether it was because of injury problems or change in strategy, Coach Bradley gave into everyone's suggestions and borderline pleas to play the more attack-minded player in Jose Francisco Torres alongside Michael Bradley versus his normal strategy to keep the center of the field under control with two center midfielders who can play both ways. Yes, Ricardo Clark is injured. Yes, Jermaine Jones is still not ready.
Why not start Maurice Edu who has the ability to defend and free Michael Bradley to get forward when necessary? Edu and Bradley seemed to work well together in the second half, but Torres and Bradley both looked like fish out of water in the center of the field, Wesley Sneijder looked like the best player in the world, and Van Bommel and De Jong could classify this as a day off as they had very little work to do against their counterparts.
The underlying issue here is the US' exposure in the middle of the field and looking forward to their first World Cup match up. If they failed to contain a single attacking center midfielder, how will they cope with arguably the best center midfield combination in the world when they face England's Gareth Barry, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard?
Bradley will need to look at the tape of this game and make the necessary adjustments in upcoming friendlies to make sure he is able to identify the best available center midfield pairing for South Africa.
The US back line also looked a bit shaky as they seemed very concerned with the dangerous pairing of attacking flank players in Arjen Robben and Eljero Elia. Jay Demerit usually found himself on the right backing up Jonathan Spector as he tried to cope with Elia's speed and trickery, and Carlos Bocanegra was usually on the left backing up Bornstein who was trying to shut down Robben.
Once again, if Bradley thought that last night's matchup was alot to deal with, wait until he has to put together a plan to contain Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Theo Walcott, or whomever else Fabio Capello decides to start on the flanks and at the same time try to shut down one of the world' most in-form strikers in Wayne Rooney. Yes, we still have a lot of work to do.
Of the players who were on audition tonight, Stuart Holden showed coach Bradley the most promise before suffering an injury that was product of a dangerous tackle by Nigel De Jong. Unfortunately the tackle led to another costly injury to a player who is almost certain to make the World Cup roster and who recently signed a short-term deal to play in England.
Robbie Findley did well finding space and working with Jozy Altidore, but his lack of experience showed in the first half when he rushed a left footed shot that wouldn't trouble most NCAA goalkeepers. Findley's performance could be classified as above average. He didn't hurt himself, he didn't help himself, but I'd still rather see him in a starting lineup than Eddie Johnson.
Landon Donovan was invisible throughout the entire game and I'm curious as to why the best player on the national team was wasted on the left flank? I would have much rather have seen Bradley switch to a formation similar to that of the Dutch with Jozy up front, Donovan at attacking mid, Edu and Bradley in the middle, Holden and Torres on the flanks, and the same back four. The formation that Bradley chose was traditional, predictable, ineffective, and just plain wrong in my opinion and I think that he and his coaching staff could have planned better.
The key injuries to Oguchi Onyewu, Charlie Davies, and Clint Dempsey are unfortunate, and everyone knows that. But the coach's job is to field a team positioned to succeed based on their opponent, and last night Bradley failed to do so.